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The Winner is SNL, the Loser is All of Us

Biden-Harris promises a return to the Golden Age of political satire. Which sucked.

There is a variation of this tweet going around every social network I have been on today:

This sentiment is also found in article form, in The New York Times, Mic, Today, ABC, Vulture, CNN, Entertainment Weekly, PopSugar, Rolling Stone, Buzzfeed, and The Guardian. The latter publication says it outright: “Maya Rudolph: the unambiguous winner of the Kamala Harris VP pick.”

I like Maya Rudolph a lot, as it is. She’s one of the few Saturday Night Live personalities whose presence in other comedies is a pleasant surprise, rather than a minor annoyance (strangely, Pete Davidson is another? He seems nice, in a vulnerable sort of way. Anyway.). Her impression of Kamala Harris on SNL is perfect for that show, and a natural extension of the greater Rudolpherse, if you will.

I say all of this to make it clear that my problem is not with Maya Rudolph, but rather with the place Saturday Night Live plays in the average American’s consumption of politics.

The issue, I think, is that SNL’s brand of comedy is very much used as an analgesic, a way for us to laugh off some of the pain and stress of our common moment. The president is silly, and a moron, but everything is fundamentally going to be OK because we can say this on national TV. As CNN’s Alisyn Camerota put it two years ago, watching SNL can feel like a patriotic act:

I am at my most patriotic when I watch Saturday Night Live. And I’ve always felt this way. In high school, in college, I remember having the epiphany of: Wait a second, we live in country where comedians can mercilessly make fun of our president—and I’ve felt this way for decades—how great is this country that we live in.

There is another way that comedy can be used, I think: as a scalpel and a mirror, holding up a reflection of the dirty wounds in our societal body and then cutting them out. The closest a comedian has gotten to this on a major platform is Michelle Wolf’s White House Correspondent’s Dinner speech in 2018, which included a pretty good joke about then-White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders that also implicated the failings of the White House correspondents who covered her:

“I actually really like Sarah. I think she’s very resourceful. She burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.”

The White House Correspondent’s Association did not like this. From the NYT, emphasis mine:

“Last night’s program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility, great reporting and scholarship winners, not to divide people,” [W.H.C.A.] president Margaret Talev wrote. “Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.”

SNL is very good at toeing this line, largely because it is run by the same people as the White House Correspondents Dinner: rich TV network elites like Lorne Michaels, who recognize that their power and wealth derives from keeping people happy and entertained while not questioning the structures that keep them powerful and wealthy.

You can see this in SNL’s portrayal of Trump, which leaned hard into the popular conception that he was an outlier, an aberration in the long line of respectable U.S. leaders, therefore dodging the more uncomfortable reality that the building blocks of Trump’s tyranny had been carefully laid by that same line of leaders. This is far, far easier to do in a Democratic administration, where abuses of the system are usually well-enough disguised that there are easier targets for comedy, like a politicians’ personal quirks. (SNL’s reaction to Trump’s election, for instance, was to have Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton sadly playing “Hallelujah,” rather than doing any meaningful, comedic interrogation of why she failed to beat a racist TV game show host).

If Biden wins, SNL and its ilk are going to have a field day with the zany combination of Uncle Joe and Girlboss Kamala. It would be a shock for Rudolph to use her portrayal to actually question Harris’s openly malleable ideology or aggressive record as a prosecutor. The Biden laugh lines will largely be jokes about his forgetfulness or verbal gaffes, minor blips that can be spun for a laugh by everyone involved.

Everyone, including Biden and Harris themselves, will be in on the fun. Trump will be gone, the status quo will be back, and things will be good again. Everyone will be happy. The system of power that elected Donald Trump and inflicted centuries of indignities on various groups of American citizens will have righted itself, with a steady hand at the wheel, ready to churn on unchanged for 200 more Saturday nights to come.